If you’ve noticed changes in your parents as they’re getting older, you may be wondering what healthy aging really looks like. Here’s how to know if the differences you’re seeing are normal, or if they could be a sign of something more serious.
If your parents are getting older, you can expect to notice some changes. “As we age, there are physical changes we have to adjust to,” says Sharon A. Brangman, MD, chair of the department of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and the director of the Upstate Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease. However, many of these changes are totally normal, and they don’t always signal a problem, she adds.
So how do you tell the difference between healthy aging and a potential mental or physical problem? This guide will help you understand when you should be concerned, and when your parents are probably doing fine.
Aging Parents: Warning Signs of a Problem
When trying to figure out if your parents are healthy and getting by okay on their own, the first thing to look at is what Dr. Brangman calls changes in the instrumental activities of daily living. “These are changes in function that affect a person’s ability to get through the day, including things they do to interact with the world around them or to maintain the household,” she explains. Such changes may include:
Changes in the Level of Organization in Maintaining the Household “For example, if you start to see mail piling up, food spoiled in the refrigerator, or the refrigerator not stocked,” Brangman says. However, if your mom or dad was always disorganized, that doesn’t always signal a problem. “You’re looking for a change from the normal pattern,” she adds.
Not Keeping Track of Medications This means anything from not taking their medication every day and correctly, to not getting refills.
Not Managing Bills and Finances “Some people start to notice that their parents are not opening bills or critical bills are not being paid,” says Brangman.
Subtle Changes in Judgment “They might be more open to scams, or see commercials on TV about sad puppies and send money to that rather than paying for essentials,” says Brangman. “Sometimes, they might not respond to a situation with the appropriate level of concern. I had a patient whose mother tried to heat up slice of pizza in the oven but kept it in the box and caused a fire. She didn’t even realize how dangerous it was and thought her daughter was overreacting.”
Difficulty Remembering They might tell you stories they already told you, or be more repetitive. But it’s important to note that memory loss is not a normal part of aging, says Brangman. “Sometimes as we get older, we have trouble remembering a name, or it takes a little longer to pull it up,” but they should be able to get there eventually, she explains. An inability to find lost objects could also be a sign of a problem. “We all misplace something, but if they can’t retrace their steps to find an object, or find it in a really strange place, like glasses in the freezer, then that’s a concern.”
If your parent isn’t up to date on current events, don’t assume it’s Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. “You can get through the day and function very well without knowing the president,” Brangman points out. Confusion or memory problems can also be caused by medications, Brangman says. “Many aging adults have trouble keeping track of prescriptions, and an overdose can easily lead to mental and physiological problems,” she explains. “The more medicines you take, the more risk of taking them incorrectly or having a drug interaction that can cause problems.” If you’re concerned about your parent’s memory loss, she recommends checking out Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Other Changes Other changes to look for include any change of weight, social withdrawal (not doing activities they used to enjoy), failure to maintain personal hygiene, or any change in usual habits. These could also be symptoms of depression, which is very common in older adults, says Brangman.
If you notice that your aging parent is having trouble completing the activities of daily living, it’s important to take them to a doctor — if possible, a geriatric medicine specialist — for an evaluation, adds Brangman. However, if they are completing these tasks more slowly but still completing them, that’s okay, she notes.
Strategies for Helping Your Parents Age Well
“Aging is not a disease,” says Brangman, who emphasizes that there are ways to age successfully. “Even if you have medical problems, you can still maintain a good level of function, social engagement, and quality of life.” Here are some of her tips for helping your parents live their best life as they get older:
Aging adults can also benefit from increasing muscle strength, Brangman says. In particular, a strong core can help older adults stand upright, improve their balance, and avoid dangerous falls. “If you’re walking with a cane or walker it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “We don’t want older people to think it’s too late because they didn’t exercise when they were younger … you can build muscle mass even in your eighties and nineties.”
Avoid social isolation. If your parents are still living in the home where they raised their family, friends may have moved or passed away, and if they’ve retired, they may be out of the social loop. “It’s critically important to help your parents avoid social isolation,” says Brangman. “This happens very frequently and is as deadly as smoking as far as overall heath. We are wired to be social. Some of us are introverts, but people in general do better when they are around others, and social connections are good for the brain.”
Being around others also means there are other people on the lookout for possible problems, she adds. “Skype and FaceTime are not the same as real human contact,” Brangman says. “If nobody lives at home or nearby, they may not be talking to people on a regular basis. Once you retire, it’s important to volunteer, go to a senior center, or join a religious group. Find a buddy to walk with then you’re accomplishing two things at once (walking and socializing). When the weather gets bad, you can get creative. [Walk in] big box stores, or malls.”
Ensure their home is safe. Carefully check your aging parent’s home for hazards that could cause trips and falls. “As we age, there are natural changes in gait and walking patterns that can increase the risk for falls,” says Brangman. “Falls are a big cause of changing older people’s lives.”
The Challenges of Spotting Health Problems in Aging Parents
An adult child might miss the signs of health problems if they see an aging parent all the time. “If you see your parents a lot, so many of these changes are so gradual and subtle that you may not notice them,” says Brangman.
Children who do not see their parents often will be more likely to observe problems right away. “Some family members may talk on the phone with an aging parent, then visit them and realize that all is not okay,” says Brangman. “We get a lot of calls around the holidays when adult kids come back home to see their parents. You get a whole different perspective than you do on the phone.”
In many cases, aging parents won’t admit that something might be wrong, or will minimize their need for help, says Brangman. “They are afraid of being put somewhere. They may not want to move or be a burden to their kids, or cause them concern,” she explains.
Even if an older parent doesn’t have any health problems, they may still need help with high-risk chores, like going on the roof to clean the gutters or shoveling snow. “These chores put a very big strain on the heart and the back, and there is an increased risk of falling on ice,” says Brangman, who recommends outsourcing these tasks if possible.
Summary: Everyone Needs Help Eventually
If you are concerned about an aging parent’s health, arrange to get a doctor’s evaluation right away. “These types of situations do not benefit from denial and ‘waiting and seeing,’” says Brangman. “You may find yourself having to make decisions in an emergency situation, which may mean that your decisions are limited.” While many older parents do just fine on their own, at some point, everyone will need some help, she adds. “Some of us need it at 95, some of us need it at 70. It depends on a lot of factors.”